Henri Joutel was a French soldier and explorer who served in the last expedition commanded by French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Joutel kept a detailed journal of his time in North America, including his experiences in what would become Arkansas.
Henri Joutel was born in Rouen, France, the hometown of La Salle, around 1643. Joutel’s father worked for La Salle’s family as a gardener. Joutel spent more than fifteen years in the French army and signed on as a member of the expedition that departed France on July 24, 1684. The third expedition organized by La Salle, it consisted of four ships and was tasked with establishing a colony along the Gulf Coast. Almost 300 soldiers and colonists embarked on the expedition, and Joutel served as a close confidant of La Salle.
The ships arrived off the coast of what is now Texas in early 1685 and eventually created a temporary settlement on Matagorda Island. After losing some of the ships, the remainder returned to France, and the settlers moved to a new location on the mainland. By this time, only around 180 settlers remained after many died from disease, accidents, and confrontations with local Indians. Joutel served as an important lieutenant during this period, commanding the post while La Salle explored the countryside. La Salle planned to establish a colony along the Mississippi River and did not realize for more than a year that he had landed west of the river.
La Salle launched two expeditions to the east to find the river but was unsuccessful. During the expeditions, Joutel remained at the settlement. Joutel joined the third expedition, which departed the settlement on January 12, 1687, in an effort to reach Fort Saint Louis in what is now Illinois. Twenty-three colonists, including children, remained at the settlement, and seventeen men left on the expedition. The party members utilized a number of Indian guides to direct them, and they were passed off to new tribes as they traveled.
Growing short of supplies, a faction of the expedition attacked other members of the group, killing seven, including La Salle, on March 19. More were then killed, including La Salle’s killer and several other members of the expedition.
Joutel led the remaining six loyal members of the expedition to the northeast, crossing the Red River into what is now Little River County on June 30. Over the next month, the group moved eastward, crossing the Little Missouri River on July 6 and the Ouachita River on July 11. On July 18, the party crossed the Saline River and reached the Arkansas River on July 24. Reaching the Mississippi River on July 29, the group moved upstream and left Arkansas the next day. The group moved across numerous present-day counties during this period, including Hempstead, Nevada, Ouachita, Cleveland, Bradley, Drew, Lincoln, Desha, and Arkansas. Joutel’s journal records the tribes that the group interacted with and other details that he found interesting, such as the alligators he saw near Bayou Bartholomew.
The group ascended the Mississippi and reached Fort Saint Louis, where they wintered before going to Canada early the next year and making a report to authorities. They returned to France in late 1688. Upon the group’s return to Europe, Joutel obtained a job as guard at one of the Rouen city gates.
In 1698, Louis de Pontchartrain began to organize an expedition to Louisiana to be led by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and requested a copy of Joutel’s journal to help the expedition. Joutel provided the journal but declined an offer to join the expedition. The journal was returned at the conclusion of the expedition with some pages missing but has still proven to be an invaluable resource to historians. Joutel died in Rouen around 1735.
For additional information:
Foster, William, ed. The La Salle Expedition to Texas: The Journal of Henri Joutel, 1684–1687. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1998.
Joutel, Henri. A Journal of La Salle’s Last Voyage. New York: Corinth Books, 1962.
Henderson State University